In Sunday’s Washington Post, Peter Marks opines the demise of men in tights and the ascent of the high concept. He writes, “It is the fashion in these meddling times — now perhaps more than ever — to put the doublets in mothballs and tie up Shakespeare in the threads of ponderous context. Only cursory consideration seems to be given in Washington or Baltimore, London or New York to whether it makes sense to dress Petruchio in chaps or Macbeth’s witches in the aprons of abattoir workers.” Mr. Marks smells a trend, and he has a fair point; in general, I think of the word ‘concept’ with a big red circle and a line through it. The situation may, however, be more fraught, more complex.
We have no idea what Shakespeare intended. He used the tools of the theatre that were available to him in his time to tell his stories. The King’s Men wore the clothes of their period when they performed Shakespeare’s plays. We surmise as much from the surviving inventories of costume pieces, language in the plays (“cut my lace, Charmian”), and the rare extant sketch. But from that same sketch we know that they made some effort to indicate ‘Roman’ through a piece of draped, toga-like cloth.
Does it not stand to reason that, 400 years on, we might sometimes choose to wear contemporary clothing while we tell these stories? What is the value of locating these old stories within the living memory of the audience?
Moving Shakespeare into the 20th or 21st centuries yields accessibility, a more familiar visual vocabulary for audiences, potentially creates comfort where some spectators felt anxiety, but it also risks a gun fight at the Textual Corral and I suspect that this gets to the heart of Mr. Marks’ lament. It’s more difficult to understand the choices many characters make in a 21st century context: Isabella’s squeamishness about her virginity, Katherina’s unhappiness at home and acquiescence to an uncertain marriage, Helen’s stalker-like pursuit of Bertram spring quickly to mind, alongside Malvolio’s yellow stockings and the delay in getting Friar Lawrence’s message to Romeo (yes, I know, FedEx did stop by).
Concept productions run the risk of belittling the play, making it less than, if the production team is not very careful. Once one starts cutting lines to support one’s concept, one might instead want to think about writing one’s own play. Too often, it seems that directors choose the concept nearly in lieu of the play itself, not trusting that this hoary old tale will hold up to much scrutiny, so we’d better tart it up. In some cases, perhaps, the director doesn’t actually understand the language himself, isn’t interested or inclined to do his dramaturgical due diligence. Back in the mists of my assisting days, I supported a director who explained his visual choices to the cast by saying, “Doesn’t this look cool? This is going to look so cool.” (It didn’t look that cool.) Peter Marks similarly suspects the high concept to be, “a product of a general unease in contemporary theater over the rigors of speaking the verse and fully illuminating character.”
Mr. Marks mentions recent productions that, in their quest to demonstrate Shakespeare’s relevance and currency, have managed to be simultaneously culturally insensitive and airless. There are also the weary retreads: the post-apocalyptic, AK-47-toting Hamlet, the Nazi-esque Richard III. Just this morning, I received an email blast inviting me to “See Hamlet as you’ve never seen him before.”
Please just point that AK-47 at me and kill me.
Libby Appel once said of the work at Oregon Shakespeare Festival: “There was a time when the festival adhered to a traditional Shakespearean look. We have completely blasted that out of the water.”
And yet, concept productions sometimes work very well. There isn’t a conspiracy or a double standard here. The text has to come first. At Oregon, the script for each production is built from the Folio or other early texts. Textual cruces and editorial emendations are accorded equal weight in the working script; these choices are debated and explored within the laboratory of rehearsal. Vocal coaches at OSF sometimes begin to work with an actor on a particular character before the previous season ends.
Whatever concept a director chooses, it should help to tell the story rather than obfuscate it with cleverness. It should illuminate some aspect of the story, throw it into relief, and a production needs to take care that its desire to do this is not at odds with the spine of the play. Elizabethan productions ‘work’ in the sense that they don’t fight the text, but they have the potential to make just as great a sucking sound as any Mad Max-infused Hamlet.
Robert Brustein sees two basic methods of ‘reworking’ the classics: (i) the simile or analog approach, where something in the play is like something in another period, therefore “its environment can be changed accordingly;” and (ii) the metaphor or poetic approach, which attempts to “rediscover the original impulses and energies of the material.” Michael Kahn warns that the analog production, with its updated setting, “can replace a real engagement with the play [. . .] any rigid concept makes Shakespeare smaller than he is.”
The analog is rarely a perfect fit, which means that the production may be at odds with the text or that it may evoke unsought and undesirable resonances. The director cannot restrain the individual spectator from considering aspects of the chosen period, which s/he might either have failed to consider or prefer to ignore. Indeed, the spectator may have a different set of connotations for the temporal analog. In the effort to stop worshiping at the Temple Shakespeare, to rescue Shakespeare from what Kenneth Branagh calls “some cultural church” and Kahn sees as a deadening “kind of reverence, a sense of inviolability,” the successful analog production can nevertheless be a powerful tool. If it is applied “for thematic rather than ornamental purposes,” it can illuminate the storytelling, reenergize the playing and, perhaps, engage in a provocative discussion both with the spectators and with the history that has led up to it.
What is the story of the play? Know that. Then decide what it might look like.